Don Quixote at 400

Whether it is the greatest of literary masterpieces or the most mis-categorized and over-sold, Don Quixote (on its 400th birthday) is my prime example of the open-source novel. The tale — itself a patchwork of picaresque and pastoral narratives — has been infinitely cannibalized and copied, retold in the forms of painting (Picasso) and film, the symphonic score (Richard Strauss) and the Broadway musical, not to mention many million cartoons of knight and squire.

Dubya and Dick? Jim and Huck? Lewis and Clark? Crosby and Hope?

Beyond the versions of itself, Don Quixote is the template of more “road” adventures and “guy” books than any classic since the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The baseball version in my youth was the Boston Red Sox pennant drive of 1967: Carl Yastrzemski as Don Quixote, Rico Petrocelli as the dogged Sancho Panza, to the tune, of course, of “The Impossible Dream” from the Dale Wasserman-Joe Darion-Mitch Leigh Man from LaMancha.

The word “quixotic” is a movable fixture of the language. In true open-source style, “quixotic” serves a multitude of meanings (valiant, vain, visionary, self-sacrificing, insane…) depending on each new user’s intention. Yet invariably every mention of the word pays homage to the original Don and the genius Cervantes who invented him.

From 17th Century Castille, Don Quixote’s tale delivers many a timely sting today, as Richard Eder observed in his New York Times review of Edith Grossman’s fresh translation. “Reading Cervantes,” Eder wrote, “we keep stumbling against ourselves: Iraq, of course, when the knight frees a group of prisoners only to have them stone him. Suddenly the giants of our day shimmer in a haze of windmills.”

And still the jury is out on Don Quixote — and ever will be. Is it more grotesque than humanistic? more barbaric than funny?

Vladimir Nabokov, in the astonishing Lectures on Don Quixote, stood himself at both intelligent extremes of critical opinion. It’s a “crude and cruel old book,” Nabokov decided, about a “lion-hearted lunatic.” And still he concludes:

Don Quixote is greater today than he was in Cervantes’s womb. He has ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought–and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon.

Vladimir Nabokov

Harold Bloom adds sagely that what Cervantes crafted is “a mirror held up not to nature but to the reader.”

There’s your invitation to a wide-open conversation on Don Quixote. How shall we go about it?

James Iffland

Professor of Spanish at Boston University

Diana de Armas Wilson

Professor Emerita of English and Renaissance Studies at the University of Denver

Author, Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World

Bud Parr

Lit blogger, Chekhov’s Mistress and 400 Windmills

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  • loki

    Cevantes tells the tale by an allusion to an earlier arabic text that was translared.

    Can we see in Quixote a challenge to the Inquistion. What was Spain like prior to 1492 when not only did Columbus discover “america” but alo Fernand and Isablla evict the jews ans muslims from Spain? What does Quixote tell us about ourselves wrought with clashing cultures that were once in dialogue.

  • theananda

    loki’s comment brings to mind Maria Rosa Menocal’s book Ornament of the World. This is such a fabulous topic. I recently purchased Grossman’s new translation, paired with the Spanish language text thinking myself clever enough to read them side-by-side, but alas. What I really enjoy about Grossman’s translation is the frequency with which she uses English words with the same root as the Spanish – which feels a proper tribute to one of the first (the first?) books to be unabashedly written in Castillian, not Latin.

  • media-savvy: among all the layers of fiction and meta-fiction, the moment that has always struck me as particularly modern (or post-modern) is when cervantes’ undermines the ‘unauthorized’ sequels to his immensely popular fist book by including a chapter in the second book (written years after the first) where don quixote, on the road to zaragossa, finds an apocryphal version of his own story and chooses to prove himself as the authentic don quixote by changing his course and heading instead to barcelona…

  • Chris

    My friend the novelist Leslie Epstein (of the classic King of the Jews and more recently San Remo Drive) hit me upside the head in an email on Don Q. It hurts so good! He’s made it clear to me before that Don Quixote is Numero Uno on his list of the all-time great novels… Here’s the note:

    Dear Chris

    I’ll be frank. I think you’re saying “the jury is out” is akin to–don’t faint–President Bush asking that intelligent design be taught in the schools so that “both sides” can be heard. There is no controversy about evolution, no clash of ideas. Neither evolution or intelligent design is an idea: one is an established an unassailable scientific theory (read fact), the other an article of faith. They should never be discussed in the same breath. There is no controversy about Quixote. The jury, gavel wielded by old Judge Time, has long rendered its verdict: it’s a masterpiece, and probably the greatest book ever written. Even you, a bit bored by it perhaps, cannot find a single panel member of your jury to take your side. Nabokov himself ends with the most beautiful compliments any book has ever received. And I don’t speak as one who says opinions never change. If you wanted to argue Shakespeare was boring, you’d have Tolstoy on your side, especially regarding his greatest work, King Lear. Dosteoyevsky? Now THERE Nabokov gives old Dusty a C. But Cervantes? Hey, look around: is there a single reputable or even silly person who does not acknowledge its greatness? Not that you can find–and not that I can think of. We all climbed out of Gogol’s overcoat said, I think, Dosteoyevsky. Well, all the writers who ever finished a novel, including of course Gogol, were pulled along by old Racinente or whatever the hell the Don’s horse was called. I’d be happy to take part in a real controversty (assuming I felt qualified to do so), but this is a false one, Chris, and doomed from the start. There. I told you I’d be frank…

  • ismael

    “Rocinante”. The horse was called “Rocinante”.

  • evan

    Well, if its importance isn’t in question, why not fill in the cracks and take a winding, perambulating look at the nooks and crannies the book’s created in various corners of history? The odd stories, the knock-offs, what it’s inspired, and why the characters of Quixote and Panza are so important themselves?

  • Chris

    One of the great Quixotistas out there just dropped me a mighty email on the political and modern-day thrust of Don Quixote –picking up on the “Dubya and Dick” suggestion and extending Richard Eder’s reference to the US in Iraq today. Diana de Armas Wilson is Professor Emerita of English and Renaissance Studies at the University of Denver, and the author of Cervantes, the Novel, and the New World, Oxford UP: 2000. She writes:

    Avowedly hatched in prison, the novel was written (as you know) by a maimed POW and jobless veteran of Philip II’s wars against the infidel. Cervantes belonged to “the last great imperial generation of Spaniards after the triumphs of the 16th century.�  He lived in an “iron age,� not unlike ours, when a superpower was unraveling precipitously.   He was great comic satirist, and the major target of his satire, as I read it, was Spain’s collapsing empire.  


    Your essay cites Richard Eder on how in reading Cervantes “we keep stumbling against ourselves: Iraq, of course, when the knight frees a group of prisoners only to have them stone him.�  Iraq, yes, but not only because of the prisoners’ ingratitude, since the dynamics of liberation rarely produce any prolonged gratitude among the liberated.  In my talks at Brown and Amherst earlier this month, I addressed the many failed liberation scenarios in Cervantes’s novel, e.g., the abused farmboy Andres, the Basque matron, the galley slaves, the statue of the Virgin Mary and, above all, the pasteboard figures in Master Pedro’s puppet show (II.26), whom Don Quixote disfigures in his frenzied rush to liberation (e.g., the de-nosed Melisendra).

    This last episode suggests that Cervantes’s dynamics of liberation might serve as a “reality check� for would-be liberators.  What follows is a paragraph from my Brown paper (to be published by Amherst): “In Master Pedro’s puppet show, Cervantes anticipates a host of questions applicable to our enterprise in Iraq.  E.g., at what point is it madness to attempt a liberation? Why are some liberations so inept?  What if the conception is noble, but the implementation a disaster?  What if the conception itself is flawed? Who is providing the intelligence?  Who gets caught in the crossfire?  What are the costs of liberation, in both blood and cash?  And, finally, why are post-liberation rulers so often likened to puppets?  Once a  liberation has overextended itself, incurred immense debts or budget deficits, lost the so-called ‘hearts and minds’ of the very people it set out to liberate––and perhaps even cut off some of their noses––then it has earned the title of quixotic.� 

    Cervantes’s fictions of liberation are, I believe, more relevant to present-day Americans than, say, Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War (which Victor Davis Hanson recommends as timely reading).  Our nation does not exactly share the slavery-propped institutions of Athenian “democracy,� but we’re beginning to share all the hallmarks of “quixotic� behavior. 

  • Obadiah

    The Boston Public Library had (has?) a small rare book exhibit celebrating DQ on its top floor that starts with the beginnings of the picaresque tale (the name Cid sticks with me, not sure who dat) and has on display some of the first copies of the novel, along with many translations through the ages, and an enormous deluxe edition illustrated by Gustav Dore.

    If you contact the author Carlos Fuentes in Mexico City somewhere, he could probably talk about th enovel for hours. He claims to read it every year.

    An interesting topic to discuss is how Book I differs from Book II. I feel there’s something fundamentally different between the two. Book II is more consequential and characters self-aware?

    the first modern novel and probably my favorite. When I think of the tales of our knight-errant I am reminded of this quote by Joyce:

    Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.

  • Obadiah

    Oh yeah, I think there was some dude that tried to write Book II of Don Quixote and pass it off as the official continuation to Book I. Well Cervantes hears about this and if I’m not mistaken totally rips into this guy somewhere in Book II.

  • rpgeezer

    While neither a critic nor a well read intellectual, I still feel I can say that this is one of the finest novels ever written. I feel qualified to make that statement simply because this is the only novel that made me belly laugh out loud in public. No need to rationalize or analyze (leave that for Gargantua and Pantagruel), it is simply a joyous read.

  • evan

    If Bloomy Bloom said that “Cervantes crafted […] “a mirror held up not to nature but to the reader,â€? it makes me wonder — I suppose it’s a simple question — how much of a departure Quixote was from the literary climate of the time, if there were any folksy dell’arte-esque troupes around that he lifted motifs from, et. al.

  • wrenhunter

    Great timing! I just finished the Grossman translation last night. A fantastic adventure, and a modern one. Hard to believe it’s 400 years old. The conceit of the “translation” from Cide Hamete Benengali, the “false” sequel, etc. are brilliant. I also laughed out loud, especially during the first beating in the inn/castle.

    *Spoiler follows*

    How sad in the end that Don Quixote never sees his Dulcinea — and sadder still that he renounces all on his deathbed! Even his friends, even Carrascon who has twice donned armor to stop DQ’s errantry and bring him home, beg him to change his mind. Surely they are speaking for us — we are the people he meets on his sallies, those who “delight in his madness and are amazed at the wisdom of his speech”, the boys who follow him on his horse hoping for new adventures.

  • jdyer

    Let’s not forget the gorund breaking work of the great Spanish scholar Americo Castro.

    I especially admire his historical researchers on the conflict between the new Christian Ceravantes and pace him, Don Quijote and the old Christians.

    he sees this conflict in the scene where the Don encounters the silk merchants in Part One on their way to Murcia.(see chapter 4)

  • jdyer

    “A Don Quijote for the New Millennium”

  • kel

    I am reading Don Quixote now. I am at page 326 of the new Edith Grossman translation. It is a bit of a slog but well worth it. I t is very funny and has many laugh out loud parts. It also is full of surprising comments about men and women that survive well 400 years later.

    I think one advantage to English readers is that this novel is free of many of the idioms that make Shakespere so obtuse to the modern reader.

    Clearly Don Quixote was “mad”. Today he would be treated as a psychotic manic depressive. Pancho was also a bit of a nut but his nuttiness is so infused with his greed that it is hysterical

    Everyone should try it!

  • cheesechowmain

    Eleven million U.S. adults — about one in 20 — have such poor English skills that they can’t read a newspaper, understand the directions on a bottle of pills or, in many cases, carry on a basic conversation, says a new federal survey that offers the first peek in more than a decade at the USA’s “non-literate” adult population.

    Survey finds 1 in 20 lack basic English skills

  • scribe


    “Eleven million U.S. adults — about one in 20 — have such poor English skills that they can’t read a newspaper, understand the directions on a bottle of pills or, in many cases, carry on a basic conversation, says a new federal survey that offers the first peek in more than a decade at the USA’s “non-literateâ€? adult population.”

    Therefore no one should read until everyone can read, right?

    Thanks for sharing.

  • moseyg

    For fifteen years I have always maintained that my fabulous undergraduate course on El Quijote was one of the best learning experiences of my life, when master Professor Antonio Carreno walked us through the entire Quijote in its magnificent and difficult castellano.

    After tonight’s show I realize that I am correct in valuing the Quijote and that class so highly, but that I am remiss in not returning to the text in all this time.

    This show has inspired me to refresh my memory of all the difficult contradictions and novelties that the text presents. All the subtleties seem to disappear after time, and I have been left with a bare skeleton of what it really represents.

    But I still think of Quijote in the most positive light, and when I make a comparison of someone I know with him, it is meant as a compliment.

    Hopefully there is time to read such a tome in a very different life with its many responsibilites, without a guide like Professor Carreno!

  • scribe

    “The 11 million adults who are not literate in English include people who may be fluent in another language, such as Spanish, but are unable to comprehend text in English.�

    Hey cheeseman, you forgot to tell us that the eleven million could read Don Quxote in the original language.

  • ali

    thanks for the show, I was waiting for it to come up. I’m a spaniard with residence in Boston but currently back home. I was intrigued about an american perspective on Quijote as we in Spain have been a bit saturated lately on air, print and elsewhere waves by the 400th anniversary.

    as always OpenSource have raised to the ocassion with a witty, insightful, fluid conversation on a universal literature piece. the “comment on Empire” was appropriately thought-provoking as were the take on Castro & Chaves, which I didn’t now about.

  • ali

    thanks for the show, I was waiting for it to come up. I’m a spaniard with residence in Boston but currently back home. I was intrigued about an american perspective on Quijote as we in Spain have been a bit saturated lately on air, print and elsewhere waves by the 400th anniversary.

    as always OpenSource have raised to the ocassion with a witty, insightful, fluid conversation on a universal literature piece. the “comment on Empire” was appropriately thought-provoking as were the take on Castro & Chaves, which I didn’t now about. from susan sontag’s comment on “great epic on addiction”

  • Potter

    An Inspiring hour! I found my copy with a bookmark on page 95. I don’t remember what stopped me, probably life. I will start again. It’s the Putnam translation. I think I will read either the Grossman or the Rutherford… the point is to read it.

    Thank you- again great guests and an inspiring show. This really picked me up off the floor from the show about how “off center” we are. And yet— weren’t we still talking about it ?The Irish called their problems ‘the troubles” , The Israeli’s call theirs “the situation”. They manage to draw a line around it and go on.

  • jdyer

    I posted the following on Chekhov’s Mistress weblog:

    I heard the show on Don Quijote.

    The show was on the whole good, though as a veteran reader of the Quijote I didn’t, alas, hear anything that I didn’t already know.

    My big surprise was the mediocre performance by Diana de Armas Wilson. I had read a number of her article which showed original insight into the text. On the show her comments were mediocre at best and didn’t rise above the level of a junior college introductory course.

    Professor James Iffland, whose work I am not familiar, was much better.

    I was especially taken aback by the shallow historical comment thrown out by Professor de Armas Wilson. Her attempt to politicize the literary discussion was unfortunate.

    No one made one of the most important historical data for understanding the Don. As an Hidalgo he belongs to the minor aristocracy. This means that his status is higher than his economic means for supporting it. Hidalgos were not allowed to earn a living either by manual or mental labor in order to support themselves. They could only live off their lands.

    Any minor aristocrat who broke the rules would lose his honor and his status as an hidalgo. Cervantes had in his exemplary novels (stories) dealt with this and many other themes that he introduces in the Quijote.

    The Don’s socio-economic status is not an unimportant datum. IN his first excursion he doesn’t even take money with him and is lectured by a hard headed realist inn keeper about the facts of economic life.

    The discussion on the radio touched on many issues but didn’t work out any of them. There should have been a way to combine some central themes and than settling a root theme which incorporate many of the other themes and motifs.

    I would have chosen the uses of the imagination which would place the Membrino’s basin helmet since in many ways its central to the poetics of the novel.

    It isn’t true that the object was a basin which a psychotic Don Quijote mistakes for a hamlet.

    That’s too easy and would turn the novel into a conventional story about illusion. Too Cervantes the helmet, he coins a new term “baciyelmo,� to characterize the object. Object for Quijote and perhaps Cervantes do not have either intrinsic meanings or functions: their meanings and functions depend on the perspective of the viewer. (The Spanish phenomenologist Ortega Y Gasset wrote insightfully on this issue.)

    The point is that this view is at the heart of the Cervantine poetics in this novel.

    Still the radio program did bring up some other important issues and I enjoyed listening to Bud Parr.

  • I forced myself to read the new Grossman translation when I made it back from Iraq. Well deserving of it’s “greatest novel ever written” banner. It’s very easy to see how damn near every writer since has found a way to plagerize this work. Now I need to read the Real Academia version to connect with my lapsed Spanish roots.

  • Potter

    Thank you JDyer for your excellent comment. I was going to write in mine above that I particularly appreciated Prof. Wilson’s comments. I do not have the experience that you have with the book. Still, for me the show worked, worked well enough to get more interested and committed. Certainly another show on Cervantes (part two) would be welcome as far as I am concerned. Again thanks for your insights.

  • Nice Show, rekindled my interest in the knight of the woefull continence… dug out my old encyclopedia britanica great-western books edition and began reading it again. Thanks RadioOpenSource!

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  • Glen

    Just listened to your programme its now Feb 2012 … glad its still there … am trying to write a play, but somehow find myself making a cake, walking the dog … anything but … it will be about The Adventures of Sancho P … Sancho will be played by a great talent … Downs Syndrome actor. Yes he is a peasant, likes his food, wants to be Gov’nor of an island, is married, gets scared when he should be scared, unlike his Master, loves Dapple,has has a big belly, suffers real hardships on the road, is ‘ entertaining’ to others like the Duke and Duchess, can govern when put to the test, is proven to love his master and weeps at his deathbed. Anything else you would like to tell me about him ….